Given that her scientific study has the potential to save millions of lives and avert a medical catastrophe, Kirsty Smitten harbors illusions of one day receiving the Nobel Prize.
She has developed a new class of antibiotics, something that hasn't been done in nearly 40 years, and she's only 28.
She is spearheading the charge against anti-microbial resistance, which the World Health Organization has identified as one of the largest threats to world health since it has led to the evolution of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that are resistant to treatment over time.
A heartbreaking turn of events, however, has forced this outstanding biochemist to accept the possibility that she might not live long enough to gain any recognition. After being diagnosed with heart cancer, a deadly illness that strikes just two individuals a year in the UK, Kirsty was given only months to live.
'How? Seriously, how did this happen? When we meet at the Cornish hideaway where she is spending a week resting in between cancer treatments with her fox-red dog, Bailey, Kirsty asks.
"I eat well." I don't smoke, and I don't drink much. Additionally, I played sports every day up until my diagnosis.
There aren't enough words to describe how heartbroken I am that I might not live to see the results of our perhaps Nobel Prize-winning research. The work continuing without me is the only thing I can hope for. Absolutely, it will.
It is estimated that by 2050, the number of deaths attributable to drug-resistant bacteria, such as MRSA, may increase to ten million.
Kirsty has created two antibiotic compounds with her team at Metallo Bio, a business she founded with the help of her doctorate advisor at Sheffield University, to treat bacterial infections, including strains of pneumonia and meningitis that have developed resistance to the medications typically used to treat them, as well as infections that form in wounds and after surgery.
The development process will move on to human trials after demonstrating efficacy in laboratory and animal testing, starting with pneumonia obtained in a hospital. If it works as planned, Kirsty expects the medication will be approved by 2030.
In her spare time, this smart scientist, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and was included in Forbes magazine's renowned 30 Under 30 list for science and healthcare in 2020, raises money for food banks.
Despite reasonable times of "Why me?," she is a scientist with so much more to offer the world. Kirsty is a realist, not an idealist. She is aware that a rare genetic abnormality, not her way of life, gave rise to her cancer. However, it is that rage that drives her to obsess over the latest studies and strive to purchase any extra time she can with the same tenacity that might ultimately help save the globe from anti-microbial resistance.
Examining the cannula that is now permanently implanted in the vein in her right arm, Kirsty adds, "I feel irritated towards friends if they remark, "I feel sick today," because I'll think, "Can you moan about that to someone else?"
It's a little harsh considering that I wanted them to treat me normally.
"Occasionally, my rage consumes me. The other night, when I was watching a TV news program on a convicted rapist, I became agitated and wondered why I only had months to live when there were individuals like him doing horrific atrocities around the world.
It seems so unfair, I say. Even so, I wouldn't want this to happen to the worst person on the planet.
Kirsty has a heart tumor called cardiac angiosarcoma. There is a good chance she would bleed to death if she chose to have the surgery required to remove it. And even if she made it through the procedure, she would likely only live for a few years longer. Her heart would stop working because this kind of tumor would come back and be likely to spread or explode.
Kirsty will no longer have the opportunity to fulfill her other goals of finding love, settling down, and starting a family, even though her legacy may save millions of lives.
My infertility is a result of the treatment. No time was available to extract the eggs, she claims.
I'm also a bachelor. Being in a relationship while unaware of how little time I have left would not be fair.
Who wants to date a person with terminal cancer, anyway?'
Last November, when Kirsty woke up in the middle of the night with excruciating chest pains, there was the first indication that something was terribly wrong.
Her father, Kevin, a 61-year-old retired businessman who had passed away suddenly three weeks previously while playing football in Portugal, seemed to be in good health at the time. His passing was being mourned by her family at the time.
Sharon, Kirsty's 60-year-old mother, took no chances and rushed her to Birmingham Heartlands Hospital's A&E, which is close to their Solihull home.
The doctor believed Kirsty's aches were likely caused by a torn muscle in her chest and planned to send her home with medication because she played football and hockey every day and often attended her gym. But Kirsty, who may be more familiar with the human body than most people, insisted that the pain was too great and that it called for an X-ray, which was duly done. The doctor also performed blood testing.
A few hours later, two experts brought her into a room and informed her that she may have a pulmonary embolism, a potentially dangerous blood clot in the lung because the clotting factor in her blood was elevated. They added that her right atrium was three times its normal size in her heart.
Heparin, an anticoagulant used to lessen blood's tendency to clot, was given, and a next-day emergency CT scan was scheduled.
After the scan, Kirsty met a physician, who informed her: "Good news, you don't have a pulmonary embolism, but we found a 6cm mass in your mediastinum [the area of the chest where the heart is located]."
He claimed that this might be a variety of things than cancer. However, I believe that even at that time, I was aware of my future fate.
An MRI came next. The lump was described to Kirsty as being uneven and gathering a lot of the medical dye used to make it more visible on the scan—both of which were poor signals.
She was more aware of the awful ramifications than her mother or her older brothers, Matt and Dan.
She explains, "I have a good understanding of oncology through my work, and I realized that it meant it was cancerous." I told my family that an unruly bulk that was storing a lot of dye was not a good thing.
Before receiving her terminal diagnosis, Kirsty underwent a number of surgeries because of the precarious location of the tumor and the possibility of experiencing a major bleed.
The diagnosis of angiosarcoma came after three months, seven scans, 15 blood tests, a minimally invasive biopsy, and significant heart surgery, according to Kirsty. "The death sentence" is how I refer to this particularly severe kind of sarcoma. I only had seven months left to live, they told me.
Kirsty has undergone six rounds of chemotherapy since receiving her diagnosis on February 8 and takes 48 tablets each day. In the awareness that they cannot save her life, these include strong painkillers, nausea medications, antacids, an antihistamine to alleviate the chemo-induced rashes, and iron for her low red blood cell count.
It should come as no surprise that she occasionally needs the anxiety and sleep disorder medication lorazepam.
Although Kirsty had never before had these mental health issues, they have been an unwelcome constant since November.
She claims, "I started having panic attacks in my sleep and before every scan." I was confused because I had never experienced a panic attack and believed I was suffering a heart attack.
The saddest part is wondering if today will be my final day when I wake up in the mornings, suffering and in pain from the chemotherapy. Before I go to sleep, I experience the same anxiety of dying throughout the night.
Hopefully, I'm steady enough right now to prevent that from happening. However, when I start to decline, it will probably happen quite swiftly.
Kirsty has read every scholarly article and first-person story on angiosarcoma, making her as knowledgeable as anyone. Another young British woman with the disease, who passed away in her sleep a few weeks ago, was in communication with her.
As the illness worsens, Kirsty worries about two things in particular. The first wears a cold cap during chemotherapy in the hopes of retaining her hair because she is no longer looking like herself. The second depicts her brain being affected by the malignancy, weakening her sharp intelligence.
She is also painfully aware of the effect on her family, who were forced to deal with losing Kirsty in addition to her father without having time to express their grief for her father. My brothers and I stressed that I truly need Mom right now and I can't use so much energy thinking about if she was OK. At first, Mum stated she couldn't deal. She has become a lot more encouraging subsequently.
Sharon is with her daughter every step of the way, as agonizing as it must be. Although Kirsty had to leave her lab and team in Sheffield because she moved in with her in Solihull, she is still able to work remotely.
Kirsty did her own research and called Professor Robin Jones, head of the sarcoma unit at London's Royal Marsden Hospital, after being informed by Birmingham Heartlands that the operation was too hazardous.
In order to discuss the possibility of performing surgery soon, he and his surgical team have agreed to meet with Kirsty towards the end of this month when she completes her last cycle of chemotherapy.
We are unsure of how much time that will buy me, Kirsty says. Some patients who have the tumor removed experience a one- to the two-year remission period. Others have weeks or days. They are unsure of what accounts for the disparity.
"I know a woman whose son had angiosarcoma and had it removed, but it returned after six weeks because the cells can't be completely removed," she said. He sadly passed away. I've also spoken to people on Facebook who have been in remission for two years after surgery, so I have to hang onto optimism.
"My life will never be the same," I said, "even after surgery I will have to continue with chemo to try to keep it at bay."
Kirsty can't help but cling to the hazy hope that if her cancer doesn't come back right away, her oncology colleagues might find a cure in time. She understands that's quite unlikely to happen, though, given how uncommon her cancer is, and it all comes down to money.
It's difficult enough trying to get money to study her own work. This is despite the fact that anti-microbial resistance is already thought to be the cause of 1.2 million annual deaths worldwide. If left uncontrolled, this is predicted to increase to ten million annually by the year 2050, surpassing cancer mortality and amounting to one every three seconds.
Since my cancer is so rare, no one wants to support research that will only benefit one person in every 36 million, according to my line of work in medical technology. Therefore, there are no significant advancements in treatment, she argues. But since that investment financing won't go into research into rare malignancies, I believe the government should designate a specific amount for it.
I'm a medical scientist, and six months ago I had no notion that you could even develop heart cancer. Given that no one is aware of it, it is understandable why diagnosis times are long and remedies are lacking.
In the manner of Dame Deborah James, who persistently worked to increase knowledge of bowel cancer before passing away from the disease last year at the age of 40, Kirsty would like to spend the time she has left promoting awareness about cardiac angiosarcoma.
The number of people affected differs significantly, though; every year, 43,000 new cases of bowel cancer are reported.
I've dealt with adversity before, Kirsty admits. It was unlikely that an effective antibiotic substitute would be discovered because only one in 20 million individuals worldwide are affected by my particular type of cancer.
In fact, my doctor made the quip that given my history, it could be worthwhile to get a lottery ticket.
'It's not in my nature to give up. So I'll go on working and fighting this for as long as I possibly can.'